It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that a powerful institution like the Metropolitan Police, wrong footed and deeply embarrassed by the student protest at Millbank on 10 November, would throw its resources into a major operation to hunt down the protesters who had humiliated them. Buoyed by the ‘shop-a-student’ campaign organised by the Daily Telegraph and the right wing blogger Guido Fawkes, there have already been more than fifty arrests.
At the same time as issuing the media with CCTV images of protesters it wants to question, the Met has also turned its vengeful eye onto the blog run by FITwatch, which campaigns against intrusive surveillance of protesters and is loathed by the police because it has successfully challenged the actions of its Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) officers. According to a report in the Guardian, the Met’s Public Order Unit CO11 have alleged that a recent posting on the blog (see here) was “attempting to pervert the course of justice” by providing guidance to students who fear they might face imminent arrest. Instead of approaching FITwatch directly about for the offending post, however, the Met's e-crime unit contacted the website’s US-based hosting company, JustHost.com, requesting the closure for entire site for 12 months. Currently it remains down, although there is apparently a back up and it can only be a matter of time before the site is moved to a new host.
FITwatch has rejected the police’s interpretation of its advice to students, saying the post was a direct response to the hysteria in the right wing press, contained nothing more than basic common sense and was comparable to solicitors’ warning to a client to say 'no comment' during a police interview. On one level, shutting the site already looks to have backfired badly – FITwatch has been provided it with more publicity than it could ever have hoped for and the post that has so upset the police has already been republished by other bloggers. The same advice to students, meanwhile, has remained online at the November 10 Defence Campaign website.
However, what is really alarming is how easy it has been for a powerful institution to lean on a website hosting company, even one outside the UK, to silence one of its more vocal critics. Perverting the course of justice, usually associated with threatening or interfering with witnesses and deliberately concealing evidence, is a serious indictable offence that would require proof of intent to secure a conviction for inducing others to fabricate or dispose of evidence, which seems like the allegation that the Met is making. Instead, the police didn’t bother with gathering evidence, making an arrest or even require a court order - one heavy-handed e-mail was enough to shut down a website without the hosting company seeking clarification for its owner or offering a opportunity to appeal.
It goes to show that there is no need for a Great Firewall or draconian legislation to censor the internet. All it now takes is a craven hosting company that cares only about making money - and a bitter, ruthless, largely unaccountable public body like the Metropolitan police that decides to suppress the right to free speech as a reprisal for its public humbling by a crowd of teenagers.
Cross-posted with thanks from Random Blowe.